Jul 16, 2022 - World

Biden tells 9 Arab leaders: U.S. "will not walk away" from Middle East

President Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
President Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

President Biden on Saturday told nine Arab leaders at a summit in Saudi Arabia that the U.S. "will not walk away" from the Middle East and "leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran."

Driving the news: The visit — part of Biden's first trip to the region since becoming president — was aimed at recalibrating ties with Saudi Arabia and bolstering U.S. influence in the region.

  • The summit included the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates — as well as from Jordan, Egypt and Iraq.
  • According to officials, Biden discussed energy security, but no new announcements on oil production were made.

What he's saying: "The United States is going to remain an active and engaged partner in the Middle East," Biden said during an address at the summit.

  • "As the world we face grows more competitive and the challenges we face more complex, it is only becoming clearer to me how closely interwoven America's interests are with the successes of the Middle East," he added.
  • He then addressed the growing Iran threat: "No matter what, the United States is committed to ensuring Iran never gets a nuclear weapon."

While U.S. troops continue to carry out missions against ISIS and other groups across the region and American troops remain deployed at bases throughout the Middle East, Biden said: “Today, I am proud to be able to say that the eras of land wars in the region, wars that involved huge numbers of American forces, is not underway."

  • Biden also called on countries represented at the summit, including many repressive governments, to ensure human rights and that people are allowed "to question and criticize leaders without fear of reprisal.”
  • “The future will be won by the countries that unleash the full potential of their populations," Biden said.

Biden also praised a U.S.-mediated agreement around two strategic Red Sea islands, which were of high importance to the Saudi officials.  

  • The deal, first reported by Axios, opened the way for Saudi Arabia to announce steps toward normalizing relations with Israel, including allowing Israeli airlines to use its airspace.

State of play: Before the summit, Biden held bilateral meetings with the leaders of Egypt, UAE and Iraq.

  • Biden invited UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed to the White House. “Challenges you face today only make it a heck of a lot more important we spend time together. I want to formally invite you to the States," the U.S. president told MBZ.

The big picture: On Friday, Biden met with Saudi leaders, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Upon his arrival, Biden gave MBS a fist bump — drawing outrage from Democrats and others.

  • The U.S. president once vowed to make Saudi Arabia a "pariah" over its human rights record, including the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. U.S. intelligence has concluded MBS was responsible for the murder — a conclusion Saudi officials reject.
  • Biden said late Friday he brought up the murder at the top of his meeting with MBS, and told the crown prince he thought he was responsible.
  • Saudi officials said on Saturday MBS pushed back against Biden's criticism and said the kingdom had taken legal action against those responsible.

Biden's trip to Saudi Arabia followed stops in Israel and the occupied West Bank.

Go deeper: Israel approves Red Sea islands deal, paving way for Saudi normalization steps

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